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When Things Shake and Rattle, Radio Rolls

Today's 'platform motion' just reinforces that radio is more robust than broadband

Paul McLane is U.S. editor in chief.

Anyone looking for proof to support NAB’s recent arguments that broadcasters are “first informers,” a vital source of information during emergencies that brings to bear a robust infrastructure, should have been standing with me in the parking lot of NewBay Media’s Virginia office this afternoon, and driven home with me shortly after.

West Coast folks will chuckle at the disruption caused by our little 5.9 temblor today that originated not all that far southwest of where I sit. But for many of us on the East Coast, an earthquake that sends shock waves through your body and sounds like a train going across the floor above you is scary indeed. I thought it was our building’s noisy generator being tested again. But after a few seconds it was apparent this was not the case. After a few more seconds, fellow NewBay staffers began hollering to each other across the editorial bullpen. Then someone said “Earthquake,” and I looked out my office door to see co-workers dashing for the doors. I had a moment of thinking, “Maybe it’s not that bad, maybe I should stay, we have deadlines to hit,” then I remembered we are in a glass-walled building with a lot of floors above us; I remembered 9/11 too.

Fortunately, we’re on the first floor of our building in Alexandria. Within moments we were outside. The fire alarms now were shrieking. A moment or two later, people from the upper floors began pouring out and away from the outer walls, just in case, into the sunshine.

That’s when it became apparent, again, how important broadcasters are to us. It was no more than a minute or two after I was out the door. People stood around me in the afternoon sun trying to make phone calls and found that they couldn’t get through to loved ones, presumably due to heavy traffic. But we had WiFi. And in clusters, people near me were doing two things: They were listening to WTOP, our local news biggie, via their smartphones; and they were checking social media to see what friends had to say. A colleague with TV Technology turned to me, gestured with his smartphone, and said, “What do people do in emergencies? They listen to radio, even if it’s over a smartphone.”

Yep. There was WTOP, already informing us of the strength of the quake, confirming what it was we’d felt and, far more important to me, what we HADN’T felt … meaning, a bomb or some other kind of terrorist attack. The reports of people feeling the quake from as far away as New England and the Southwest were actually comforting. Because I knew in a moment that we weren’t going through 9/11 again.

I thought to myself, too, that no social network could piece together the big picture of what was going on in our metropolitan area, like WTOP was doing literally within seconds and minutes. Further, I know that even if our WiFi had failed and all Internet access had gone down, we would still have access to radio stations via our car radios. And I know from RW’s own reporting how substantial WTOP’s backup facilities are.

So that was good. But the reports said that the quake had centered not far from Charlottesville. I have family there. Now I was worried about them.

We were able to get back into the office building, and I dashed off a first email; but almost immediately the fire alarms went off again. Our VP Carmel King told us all hurriedly to leave, not knowing if this second alarm was an anomaly or not. (I now suspect it was from a reported aftershock.) The staff grabbed their cars and headed out.

So very quickly I was stuck in traffic. I had no ready access to a landline or PC. I tried my phone, to call my family. No calls would go through. I had a few texts, so messaging was at least sporadic, but Charlottesville was out of touch.

What did I do? I turned on WTOP. I learned that thousands of others in the Washington area were doing the same thing I was. The information helped me make decisions to fight my way home. But more important, again, was what the station was NOT reporting. As the news station shared information about relatively mild damage in Washington, and phone calls about falling plates in Mineral, Va., what they were NOT reporting was anything about problems in Charlottesville, which I knew they would quickly have. I also felt like I was listening to friends whose job it was to help me through all this.

Of course, I wasn’t fully satisfied until I made contact with my family. That took a couple of hours before I knew that my peeps in Virginia as well as points north were accounted for. But clearly, even in this relatively mild emergency, the phone infrastructure was overloaded.

I have worked in radio, and radio news. I know its power. But I was freshly grateful for the service that radio gave me today. And I was struck by how accurate is the argument that in emergencies, the broadcast infrastructure is more robust than other communication networks that Americans are also coming to rely on.